Several years ago at the age of 23, I experienced a distinctly vivid and overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride. “I did it!” I thought as my boyfriend and I meandered Art Van picking out furniture for our very first home together. He left to investigate smart TVs and I quietly wandered through aisle after aisle of oak bedroom sets and overstuffed beige sofas. This is adulthood, I realized with giddy confidence. A delighted, albeit somewhat smug smile stretched across my naive 23-year old face.
Degree, big-girl career, long-term relationship, new car, beautiful apartment – check, check, check, check, and check! I had really aced this whole ‘growing up’ thing. At the time, life conjured images of a robust and brilliantly white sailboat, drifting peacefully among ocean waves, in stoic pursuit of a blazing sunset on the horizon. Yes, this was surely my reward for years and years of smart moves and hard work. Nothing but fair winds and smooth sailing from now until forever.
If ever you start to feel that confident in life and love, I recommend you gird you loins. The universe has a way of cold-clocking those who think they have it all figured out. And man was I about to receive a world-class ass kicking.
I’ll never forget the first time I received an honest to god compliment from a teacher. I was in first grade and we were learning handwriting (is that still a thing?). I spent an hour painstakingly recreating every letter of the alphabet on widely-ruled penmanship paper, my tongue undoubtedly protruding from the corner of my mouth as it still does today during intense concentration. I proudly marched my six-year old self to the front of the classroom and handed my finest work to Mrs. Johnson. Awhile later, she took me aside and fawned over my first-grade masterpiece. “You have the best handwriting I’ve ever seen! Perfect job, Brittany!” This happened twenty years ago…and only now, as I write this, do I consider the following: maybe she took every kid aside and told them they had the best handwriting she’d ever seen, dummy.
It didn’t matter. I was hooked. I was only six years old but I’d already discovered my heroin. From that day forward, I wanted to hear “Perfect job, Brittany!” every single day. And thus began a long and obsessive-compulsive pursuit of accolades and achievement and perfection.
For the remainder of elementary school, I was teacher’s pet. I never missed a homework assignment. I aced every single test. I was called upon to run special errands and I was placed in accelerated reading programs. What a little asshole.
High school was no different. Like a junkie, I got my fix with every ‘Outstanding!, 100%, A+, and “can I keep this as an example for future students?”‘ I was a well-oiled, people-pleasing machine.
Sophomore year. Biology. Nerd hell. Seats were assigned via alphabetical order (every introvert can appreciate the sigh of relief that accompanies assigned seats, partners, or groups – no need to actually speak to fellow humans, yay!).
Unfortunately, thanks to my dumb last name, I was seated next to “popular” kids who seemed to burst through the door of 10th grade biology in the throws of explosive laughter and chatter every single day. Having nowhere to be during passing time, I was always several minutes early to class and witnessed this spectacle daily, feeling an odd blend of indifference and yearning. ‘Must be nice…’ I’d think as they poured themselves into the seats around me, spewing the day’s gossip and cracking up. My completed and 100%-correct homework was always positioned atop my obsessively-organized binder, ready for submission. I sat in awkward silence – an invisible mute with all the right answers.
It didn’t take long before they caught on. Retrieving obviously incomplete worksheets from their backpacks, they’d hurriedly ask, “What’d you get for number five?” as if they’d even attempted question number five. How irritating. I was invisible until I was useful for something – the answers to homework. And so began a new tradition. They’d rush in, sit down, and I’d help them finish yesterday’s assignment. It was annoying as hell…but then again, for those first ten or fifteen minutes of 10th grade biology, I wasn’t invisible. And I kind of liked it.
It was the first time I learned I could get high off pleasing people my age. Help someone with their homework…and they just might say ‘hey’ in the hallway. Fascinating.
When I was 16 years old, I accepted a job as an office assistant for a nearby financial advisor. Each day, after the final bell rang, I changed into my super adult-y office attire and headed to work for two or three hours.
I couldn’t help but feel like I’d discovered a newer, stronger brand of heroin. These people loved me, and I loved exceeding their expectations. Apparently, I was an above-average paperwork filer. Monday through Thursday, I’d file and answer the occasional phone call. On Fridays, I’d clean the office and they’d hand me $50 for the week. Not bad money at 16 years old.
That summer, when other kids were sleeping until noon and running amok, I was pulling 40 hour work weeks. I didn’t mind it. In fact, I felt super grown up. My duties expanded, I exceeded expectations, my duties expanded again. And so it went for several years. I could do no wrong, my ego stroked with every raise and “Wow, Brittany! You’re doing an amazing job!”
In 2011, I was 21 years old and smack-dab in the middle of my collegiate career. While other young adults were figuring out their passions and professional goals, I was happily making $40,000 per year, three years into a relationship, surrounded by his fraternity and high school friends, and continuing to people-please my way through life. I partied and experimented with pot, alcohol, and cigarettes, but by any onlooker’s estimation, I was a remarkably successful young adult.
I decided to push the limits of my intelligence by accepting my company’s offer to sponsor brokerage licensing. I was 22 when I passed the Series 7 and Series 66 examinations (hours-long tests with a national fail rate of over 40%). Naturally, I knocked both exams out of the ballpark. It was a brand new high. My parents were thrilled. My boyfriend could hardly contain his pride. His parents were beyond impressed. I had managed to awe every single person in my life; a prodigy of the financial industry; a girl with her head screwed on tight; a real winner.
There was only one problem; a problem I successfully ignored for many years; a problem that would ultimately shape my current predicament: I didn’t actively choose finance. I didn’t pursue business administration in college. I didn’t particularly care about money, but then again, I’d never really had to worry about it either. After I had “solidified” my career path by becoming licensed, I started experiencing pangs of fear and anxiety. My boyfriend couldn’t stand my bitching. About what could I possibly complain? I was making way more money than anyone else my age and I was set for life, the income-potential unlimited. Every few months when these feelings would surface, I desperately shoved them into the furthest corner of my mind. It was ridiculous. I was being ridiculous.
Fairly logical person that I am, I kept telling myself to make the smart choice. Do the right thing. Play it safe. You’ll be happy someday. After all, everyone else seemed really stoked about my professional success. And I, of course, fed on their approval.
I call this next chapter of my life: “What the fuck were you thinking?”
The first time I “helped” my boyfriend with his homework was one month into our relationship. He was dreading an assignment for one of his bullshit general education courses: writing a three-page play. As a newly infatuated and eager-to-please girlfriend, I offered to complete the assignment on his behalf. He was so grateful. He got an A. I didn’t think much of it. It felt like 10th grade biology.
Before I continue, I want to make something abundantly clear: I was never a victim and in no way do I feel that he took advantage of me. Everything I did, I did because I wanted to and it happened because I offered. I did it because pleasing him and making him happy and bearing the weight of his burden gave me some kind of sick and twisted pleasure of my own. And beyond that, who in their right mind would turn down the ability to not do homework (aside from someone sick and twisted like me)?
The details are unessential…but I spent a fair amount of my time “helping” him with homework and papers and exams, which is to say, I did it.
There are two classes in particular that stick out in my mind…they were inconsequential online courses that we elected to take together. After a week or so, it became obvious that I was able to complete the assignments in a fraction of the time and I was getting better grades. So, like any sane and normal and psychologically healthy human (ha), I offered to do his work too. I’d finish the assignment, submit it for myself, alter it enough to prevent getting caught, and submit it on his behalf. I did this for 14 weeks. And then I did it again. And again. And I was happy to do so.
By the time he graduated, he knew he was going to immediately pursue a graduate degree. I was already seven or eight years into my “career,” so of course I saw no need to pursue a masters. We were living together and the bullshit general education assignments had also graduated – to 20 and 30 and 40 page research papers: my wheelhouse, my bread and butter. I actually enjoyed researching, developing theses, organizing outlines, and writing high-level papers with seamless APA citation.
But if I was being honest, I had started to develop a certain amount of resentment. Not only had he known for years and years exactly what he wanted to do in life, but his salary right out of college rivaled mine…and I’d already been working full-time for many years. I was disenchanted with my job and frankly, disenchanted with life in general. I hated that I didn’t have friends of my own. I hated that I was still living in Grand Blanc, and would probably remain here for the rest of my life. I hated that we slept in separate beds most nights. I hated that he had hobbies and I had none. And I started to really fucking hate doing his school work. After all – his life was great, and I felt like mine was falling to shit. Of course, these are all ‘in-hindsight’ realizations…Oprah “AH-HA” moments learned after months and months of single-person introspection.
Dutifully, I helped him to the end. In all fairness, he busted his ass to complete a Master’s degree in 18 months and I was unbelievably proud of him. He worked nine hour days and attended classes until 10:30 P.M. We pulled countless all-nighters. I told myself I was investing in my future as much as I was investing in his – after all, we were going to get married. During this time, I did my absolute best to keep the apartment clean, the laundry done, and dinner on the table (aren’t we, as 21st century women, supposed to be able to do it all?)
I accumulated credit card debt – traveling to Florida and spending long, extravagant weekends in Chicago. We frequently spent two or three hundred dollars on dinner and surprised each other with thousands of dollars in gifts. But what the hell? We were going to be rich. And soon, debt wouldn’t be an issue. After all, we were going to get married.
I spent seven years blissfully pouring my life blood into another human, with very little thought of my own happiness, my own passion, my own future. I had successfully people-pleased my way into a seemingly idyllic and perfect life. I didn’t need to be a “me” because I was a “we” and I’d done everything right and I’d accomplished all of the things I was supposed to accomplish…and after all, we were going to get married.
What the fuck was I thinking?
At 23, standing in Art Van, I thought I’d really nailed adulthood. And in many ways, I had. I had all the trappings of a responsible, well-planned, and properly-executed life. I’d made all the right moves, played it safe, and pleased all the right people. I was on track for marriage, a lucrative corporate career, a big house, a picket fence, and 2.5 children.
A few weeks ago, at 26, I sat on the floor of my little apartment, reading Seventeen magazine and eating a bowl of fruit loops in my underwear. I stopped, looked around at my decidedly erratic and bohemian and very not-grown-up decor, and started laughing. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. The fruit loops sloshed over the side of the bowl and I set it down to avoid total disaster. I was laughing at my new-found and deeply treasured adulthood failure. I was laughing at my unreasonable credit card debt. I was laughing at my current (but not permanent) lack of direction. I was laughing because I felt 18…I felt so lost and so young and so joyful at the prospect of my unplanned, undetermined, beautifully empty future.
For 20 years, I gave and gave and gave. I gave to everyone but myself. I pleased everyone but me.
For the first time in my entire life, I am living for my own happiness. I am learning and falling and getting back up. I am exploring my passions and reading like a fiend and justifying my actions to no one. I’m free and unwilling to accept the life I resentfully tried to encompass for far too long. For the very first time, this people-pleasing, paper-perfect, A+ addict is failing spectacularly, unsure of where I’ll end up, freaked out about the future…and loving every single moment.